In the early days of their operations, the Young Lords Organization drew comparisons to counterculture movements, such as the Black Panthers, that began to pop up in America’s poor neighborhoods. Still acclimating to tumultuous racial tensions the 60s brought with the civil rights movement, regional groups like the Black Panthers sought to revive the idea of black pride and autonomy. During this time, they set up clinics, legal consul and even their own militia that served as an active threat to local police forces — founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale originally named the party Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Although similar in ferocity and structure, the YLO took on a less military-style approach and one of community building and sociopolitical reform. The most important and obvious difference between the two was the platforms for which they advocated. While the Black Panthers’ core practice was arming its members to combat police brutality committed towards African-Americans, the Young Lords called for Puerto Rican independence from the United States and the improvement in the standard of life for all Latinos.
The exhibit put on by the Bronx Museum takes a comprehensive look at the Young Lords’ impact in New York and elsewhere by piecing together the stories of those who founded the group. Through news clippings, archival video and voice recordings, attendees of the museum can experience first-person accounts of major accomplishments in the movement’s history. Some examples include theatrical garbage-dumping protests in East Harlem, educational clinics that taught the non-Western history of Puerto Rico and a series of audacious hospital occupations. However, one of the more storied takeovers happened on December 28, 1969 in Spanish Harlem. Through the peaceful occupation of the People’s First Church, the YLO was able to provide free breakfast and after school programs for the children of El Barrio. In doing so, the takeover sparked an important debate on the underfunding of social services and the need for more open, public spaces to meet community needs. To this day, the impact this has had on the neighborhood is marked with the corner of East 111th Street and Lexington Avenue renamed as ‘Young Lords Way.’
Like the Black Panthers, the Young Lords’ women’s caucus played a major role in the movement’s struggle for equal representation of Latinos in the media. However, no social movement is without its internal flaws and the YLO was no different. Leaders of the women’s caucus had to prove that occupying roles equal to their male counterparts was necessary for the movement to succeed. Players like Iris Morales and Denise Oliver slowly began to expose the organization’s institutionalized forms of sexism, including the 13 Point Program’s support for ‘revolutionary machismo.’ The exhibition covers more on the subject by featuring more than fifty works, including paintings, installations, photographs and films, that highlight the presence of these women in the Young Lords community actions in the South Bronx.
The Young Lords also took to publishing a local periodical, Palante, a colloquial term birthed from the bilingual contraction of ‘Para adelante,’ or ‘forward.’ Written and published by the people, for the people, Palante served as a bridge to keeping the people of El Barrio informed of new programs and current events affecting the cause. Decades later, the founders of the party found their place on the other side of news media, with many of them holding professions as prominent print and broadcast journalists. A few to mention include Felipe Luciano, Chairman of Lords; Juan Gonzalez, Minister of Education; and Pablo ‘Yoruba’ Guzman, Minister of Information.
Aside from what you’ll see on display at the Bronx Museum, you can also check out El Museo del Barrio and the Loisada Center for additional showcases on the Young Lords’ work in East Harlem and the Lower East Side. ¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York is co-organized by all three institutions and while admission to the Bronx museum is free, there is a suggested donation at the door. The exhibition is currently on display until October 18, 2015.
By Joan de Jesus